There Will Be War: Hot Pursuit

December 11th, 1323
Northamptonshire, Norse Law
Close to the Breton border

Two days of hard riding, and Gunnar wished his upbringing had focused less on muscle mass and more on a useful padding of fat. But they were catching up to the Assassins. The southerners were going unbelievably fast for a group with wagons and children, but their three-day lead had been cut to one, and now to a matter of hours, if the headman was to be trusted – and why not? He was a Norwegian as good as Gunnar, and had no reason to conceal the movements of foreigners.

He gave the men ten minutes to gulp down hot soup and water the horses, then called them to remount in spite of the threatening sky. Riding through a storm was a necessary risk, to be measured against the possibility of catching the Assassins before the border. Gunnar was prepared to risk the Breton dislike of Ynglings; if necessary, he’d start a war to recover the bottle. The loss of a province or two would be trivial compared to letting the Plague loose on the world. But if it could be done within the Norse Law, where an Yngling’s word made men leap to obey, so much the better.

They rode into the early darkness of winter.

——————————————-

December 11th, 1323
Northamptonshire, Norse Law
Close to the Breton border

The ambush was perfect. Tired men on horses stumbling in twilight; bushes growing up to a narrow road. The Assassins rose out of the darkness like trolls, and three Norse were down before anyone could react. Gunnar’s sword rang out of its scabbard and broke a man’s jaw on the upstroke. Teeth glittered in the torchlight as they flew through the cold air; he whipped the sword back down, hitting an arm with a crunching ring – bone breaking under chainmail. He had time for a quick glance around. The initial brief flurry of action had subsided; five of his men were down, and two Assassins in addition to the one whose arm he had broken. It was impossible to count the ambushers in the shifting shadows, but they were certainly more than his scant dozen still fighting. On the other hand his men were mounted. He could use that to restore mobility to the fight.

“Charge!”

He indicated the direction with his sword, straight ahead, kicking his tired horse into a run. The Assassins ahead had no time for concerted response. One dropped, thrusting his sword upwards to try gutting Gunnar’s horse – he swept the blade aside and Shadowfax, well-trained, trampled him – while the others dove out of the way. “Seize the initiative”, Gunnar muttered to himself, “bypass enemy concentrations, destroy their support echelons.” The Assassins here weren’t his goal, they could all live to be a hundred for all he cared; the black bottle was. They cantered on over a hill, leaving the ambush behind. He shouted instructions to his men: “Never mind them, boys, they’ve got nothing we want. The bottle will be in their wagons.”

The wagons turned out to be a mere two kilometers further on, circled to form a miniature fortress. There wasn’t much time; the Assassin men would be on them in minutes. No time to be methodical – it would have to be fast and flashy, and risky. Gunnar spurred Shadowfax into running straight at the wagons, ducking a crossbow bolt and taking his right foot out of the stirrup and coiling it under him in the saddle; at the last moment he pulled the horse hard aside to the right and jumped. He landed on a defending boy, perhaps fourteen years, whose sword rang hard off Gunnar’s chainmail. Downtime iron would have broken, but the orbit-forged alloys held and Gunnar had nothing worse than a broken rib. He was up in a flash, stomping on the face of the boy and sweeping his sword at the woman – mother? sister? – thrusting a spear towards his face. The spearpoint dipped down under his parry in perfect form and Gunnar had to scramble aside, but then Håvard was there, jumping into the hole his commander had created in the wagon’s defense. He didn’t bother with weapons, body-smashing the woman aside with his shield; she crumpled and was still.

It had taken perhaps twenty seconds. The defenders of the other wagons were struggling to see what had happened in the bad light. A few of the quicker-minded were shouting orders to converge on the wagon Gunnar had taken. But meanwhile his hirdsmenn were coming in as a formed body which knew what it wanted. At Gunnar’s swift order they split into two groups of six, which ran in opposite directions along the line of wagons, slashing down Assassins. The defenders had tried to defend the entire line, spreading their numbers thinly; now ones and twos met six hirdsmenn, and paid for the mistake. It was a slaughter for half a minute – not long enough. The remaining defenders were forming into a coherent group on the other side of the circle of wagons, too many for a dozen men to attack. The ambushers would be back at any second; tired horses aren’t so much faster than men on foot. Attacking the wagons had been a brilliant tactical success, a dozen enemies down for the trivial cost of Gunnar’s broken rib, but brought his objective no closer. No help for it, he’d have to get out before, if he got bogged down and killed there would be nobody to kick fire into the backsides of the garrison at York.

“Retreat! Back to the horses!”

In the confusion it took some moments before the order registered, and a crossbow bolt came flickering out of the dark to punch Eivind through the eye – inhumanly accurate shooting, or miraculous luck. With a start Gunnar realised that the cursed things had been flicking past in increasing numbers for the last twenty seconds; in the bad light nobody had been hit. Then the hirdsmenn were running back in something much closer to a rout than Gunnar liked; they weren’t machines, after all, they were men tired from a long day’s ride, comrades killed in an ambush, and a slaughter.

“Prisoner! Bring me a prisoner!”

That was no use, the men were intent on the horses. Gunnar stooped down himself to grab the boy he’d landed on in his initial jump – yes, still breathing, in fact well enough to scream hoarsely when Gunnar flung him across Eivind’s horse, thumping a fist into his broken nose to keep him still. Now, which way? A quick glance showed the Assassin men coming down the road from where they’d just been – only one choice then. “Onwards!”

——————————————-

December 12th, 1323
Northamptonshire, Norse Law
Close to the Breton border

The Assassin prisoner’s face looked terrible in the weak dawn light. His nose was splashed over onto his left cheek, and there was a vast bruise where Gunnar’s foot had pressed. He spoke in a mumble through swollen lips. Gunnar felt no sympathy; his own broken rib was twinging in spite of being bound up, but his mind felt like ice, all cool smooth sliding across a lake of despair.

“Your name?”

The boy’s eyes flashed defiance.

“I am Hassan.”

Gunnar leaned in close. “Understand me well, boy. I have no time for games.” Deliberately slowly, he moved his hand back and punched the boy in his damaged nose, bringing a breathless scream. “Now then. What. Is. Your. Bloody. Name.”

“Edsiran,” he mumbled, looking at the ground.

“Good. Where are the Assassins headed?”

“I don’t know” – he drew back, wide-eyed, as Gunnar pulled his arm back for another punch, and blurted “No, please! I really don’t! They didn’t tell me!”

That was reasonable; Gunnar didn’t throw the punch. He paused. There was really nothing else the boy could tell him. Was it worth dragging a prisoner along for hostage value? He rested his hand on his sword hilt, indecisive for a moment. He wouldn’t attack the Assassins head-on again, he just didn’t have enough men for it. He would have to pause to collect reinforcements. The thought struck him with blinding force – there was no need to wait for the regulars from York, he had a perfectly good county militia just a few miles away! Now that he’d caught up to the Assassins and knew where they were, speed wasn’t at such a premium anymore. He could hand the boy over to a lensmann and try it again with two hundred farmers at his back.

“All right. I believe you. You’re in luck, I’m going to save you for hanging.” Edsiran blanched, but Gunnar had already turned away. “Pack up. We’re going to rouse some fat-arsed militia and have another go. Håvard, Haldor, watch the boy.”

——————————————-

December 13th, 1323
Northamptonshire, Norse Law
Close to the Breton border

The road resounded to two hundred men marching – and chattering; the farmers were treating this unaccustomed outing as a holiday, or a hunt. Which was fine, you would hardly call it warfare if only they could catch their quarry, but Gunnar fumed at the slow pace.

“Can you make them march faster?”

The lensmann, Aelfred – Saxons held more such positions here in the south – shook his head. “Not for thieves. In wartime they would march faster, but to recover another man’s property, no – they’ll do that in their own good time.”

“This is war. War such as you’ve never seen, if they escape.”

“Why? What did they steal, that’s so important as all that?”

“A bottle of seidh. Black magic, terrible, deadly.”

The lensmann frowned. “Really? Well – I’ll see what I can do.” His shouts and kicks did indeed make the militia move a little faster, not that anything short of armoured-column speed – better still, jet-fighter speed – would have made Gunnar happy. Still, he smiled grimly as they crossed the next hill. Up ahead was a black clot, moving slowly – they had to be his prey.

“There they are!”

The column broke into a lumbering run, cries of “Tally-ho” ringing out. The Assassins paused a moment – even at that distance Gunnar could read dismay in their body language – then began to form a barricade, pushing the wagons around with desperate speed. That wouldn’t help them, the numbers were on Gunnar’s side this time, but it was probably their best move. Seeing that their quarry wasn’t running, the militia slowed down again, separating into their companies, some pausing to string their bows. They moved into shooting distance at walking pace. A few crossbows twanged from the barricade, and men went down. The archers responded as one, fifty arrows arcing through the winter air, then running forward and out to the sides to outflank the barricade, stopping every thirty paces for another shot. The rest of the militia marched forward steadily, pikes up. Gunnar exulted, he had them!

The Assassins fought to the last, but it was all over in five minutes, and Gunnar could search the wagons. The militia swarmed over the barricade, looting clothes and utensils, but not finding any black bottles. After a few minutes Gunnar grew worried.

“God damn it, where is it?”

Aelfred cleared his throat diffidently. “If it’s so important, could one of them have escaped with it, leaving these” – he gestured at the bodies – ” to buy time?”

Gunnar stared at him. “Satan pule meg baklengs, you’re right! And what’s worse – they were pulling their carts by hand today, but yesterday they had donkeys and horses. They’ll be riding hell-for-leather for the border! I’m going after them. Follow as you can. Mount up!”

The last was to his men, who had heard enough of the exchange to hurry into their saddles and spur their horses grimly.

——————————————-

December 13th, 1323
Northamptonshire
Greater Breton Realm

“Men of the Ynglinga Hird may not cross armed into the Breton Realm.”

Gunnar snarled at the sheriff. “We’re in hot pursuit of thieves, man!”

“That is not my concern. Crimes committed in the Norse Law have no weight here. On the other hand, your mere presence in arms is a crime in itself, under Breton law.”

“You have no idea what you’re dealing with. A hundred thousand men will march before we let these thieves go. Their theft will bring down God’s punishment on the entire world.”

“I shall make sure to go to Mass this Sunday and confess my sins. Meanwhile, unless you have a hundred thousand men in your back pocket, you will now turn about and cross the Thames under escort, or else.”

Gunnar weighed the odds frantically – but no, it was suicide. Ten men against the sheriff’s twenty, and even if he won the countryside would be roused against him.

“All right, all right – suppose we disarm?”

“Then how will you catch your thieves?”

“That’s my worry.” Gunnar knew as well as the sheriff that there was no lack of weapons in the Breton domains; they’d be armed again as soon as they were out of sight of the law. Still, the suggestion satisfied honour; the sheriff nodded.

“Very well, give me your weapons and – ”

“No, no. My father gave me this sword. Kjetil! Take our swords back to York, tell them to send a swift ship to Portsmouth. The rest of you, give your swords to Kjetil.”

“What about that dagger?”

“I use that to eat.” The knife in question was eleven inches long and sharpened on both edges, but Gunnar’s deadpan made the sheriff’s mouth twitch, and he nodded again. “Very well. Good luck to you.”

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